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Why Do We Tear Our Clothes After a Death?

Why Do We Tear Our Clothes After a Death?

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Question:

What is the reason for the custom of mourners tearing their clothing on the death of a loved one?

Answer:

On the most basic level, the tearing is expression of pain and sorrow over the passing. Torah law encourages—in fact mandates—such expressions as part of the mourning process.

But there is also a deeper significance. Judaism views death as a two-sided coin. On the one hand, when someone passes on, it is a tragedy. They have been lost to their family and friends, and there is a feeling of separation and distance that seems beyond repair. For this reason we observe a seven-day intense mourning period, during which the family sits at home and feels that pain and loss, followed by a year of mourning.

But often, within that very pain, the mourners have an underlying belief that “it isn’t true”—that their loved one hasn’t really gone. This is not just denial; in a way they are right. Death is not an absolute reality. Our souls existed before we were born, and they continue to exist after we die. The souls that have passed on are still with us. We can’t see them, but we sense they are there. We can’t hear them, but we know that they hear us. On the surface, we are apart. Beyond the surface, nothing can separate us.

So we tear our garments. This has a dual symbolism. We are recognizing the loss, that our hearts are torn. But ultimately, the body is also only a garment that the soul wears. Death is when we strip off one uniform and take on another. The garment may be torn, but the essence of the person within it is still intact.

From our worldly perspective death is indeed a tragedy, and the sorrow experienced by the mourners is real. But as they tear their garments, we hope that within their pain they can sense a glimmer of a deeper truth: that souls never die.

Aron Moss is rabbi of the Nefesh Community in Sydney, Australia, and is a frequent contributor to Chabad.org.
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Discussion (7)
July 27, 2014
strange custom
In the bible various people rend their clothes after a death. Nowadays, some Jews put on a black ribbon which the rabbi cuts for them to symbolize rending. I stood beside my father at my maternal grandmother's funeral while the rabbi did this for my mother and her siblings. My father leaned over and said how stupid he thought that was. If you didn't rend your clothes when you heard about the death then don't bother to pretend. That allowed my mother, who agreed, to remove her ribbon.
When my father died and the rabbi talked about this custom I told him not to bother because my father disapproved. What I found from mourning my Dad is that all these mourning customs are a burden on the mourner not a help. There are so many rules and regulations on what a mourner should and should not do, I was exhausted not comforted by them. By the end of shiva I was ready to scream if one more person said, "May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion." I wasn't.
Susan Levitsky
July 25, 2014
Didn't Jacob tear is clothes when he heard of Joseph's passing?
Richard
July 25, 2014
It’s amazing how comments deviate from the original question!
I am so amazed how Rabbi Moss describes the passing of our love ones since it was exactly how I felt when first my mother went then my father and other close relatives. It was such a deep feeling that they would never be really gone, as long as I kept thinking about them. And I am so glad that Rabbi Moss mentioned that it was not just denial. Part of me knew that they were gone forever but part of me felt like they were with me and still are.
There are intended sins and there are unintentional sins. i.e. The sole of the one who kills for greed should be the one to die. The sole of the one who kills-as in soldiers in war- should not die. Yes humans sin and it is part of human nature and G-d knows it and bears judgment on their soles according to their sins. the soul of the ones who kills and the souls that G-d judges, also that not all the souls die! I had in mind the sole soul as in each unique case should be judged.
Feigele
Boca Raton FL
July 25, 2014
The soul does not die. When my husband died his soul was always with me what ever I needed, as there is so close family I was all alone. I new that I could turn to him no matter the circumstances.
Anonymous
March 23, 2012
for me, that tear
has also other meanings, and that is, the loss of this soul, is a RIP in the fabric of life, and as R I P, is for Rest In Peace, that acronym, I see this too. I also feel that the tearing of the garment, is also for tear, meaning weeping.

And the other significance as beautifully related, I feel that too. How hard it is to lose someone, and especially in tragic, incomprehensible ways, that make no sense at all, except on some cosmic level, difficult if not possible to access here.

I trust it is illusion, Death and Life, so closely related, and G_d , AV, that be longingness, those who believe, do share, and perhaps those who don't, seeking answers, seeking ineffable truths.

Even the Moshiach must go to G_d for such profound answers and G_d and only G_d can answer. What does G_d say back. Does G_d say nothing back? as in that Jakob Dylan song?
ruth housman
marshfield hills, ma
September 3, 2011
Response to K. Rogers
Hello, K. Rogers! After some research, it seems that certain translations do not necessarily interpret Ezekiel 18:4 and Ezekiel 18:20 in the same way as your sources have done. Rather, my sources seem to indicate the word "one" or "person", where yours have indicated "soul". This may be something to consider when deciding which, if any, translation to take literally--when in doubt, I would personally recommend starting with the original Hebrew,

Besides, Judaism does not subscribe to the concept of original sin, and certainly infant children, for example, are incapable of intentional sin. Although your application of the concept of original sin is correct from a Christian perspective (I know, I am a Christian myself), in Judaism, it does not apply.
Steve
Hollywood, FL
July 13, 2011
What happens after death?
Your comment 'that souls never die' stated as a deeper truth - is actually a blatant lie. The bible clearly states in Ezekiel 18:4 & 20 "The soul who sins SHALL die". Is there anyone on this planet without sin ?? You need to study further to see that the deeper truth is actually a very simple and plain truth as revealed in God's word. A teacher should teach truth, and not lean to his own understanding.
K. Rogers
Gauteng, South Africa